Friday, September 25, 2015

Neilah - Go UP!©

Go UP!© - Neilah 2015/5776
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

This year, my siblings got me a new gadget for my birthday, something called a Fit Bit. 
You know you’re getting older when you get exercise trackers for your birthday. 

But I am getting to an age where I do need to take better care of myself, to exercise more, and this device helps me become better because I can keep track of my steps.  Now, instead of sitting on the couch at night, I’ll be pacing in my house at night if I’m close to 10,000 steps.

But Fit Bits are all about reaching that goal, 10,000 steps a day.  When you reach that goal, your arm starts vibrating – it’s like your arm is cheering for you – you’ve accomplished the goal.  But what happens when you don’t reach that goal?  I was recently at my doctor’s office and the nurse said, “hey, nice fit bit, do you like it?”  I answered, yes, and she continued, “I used to have one, but I never got up to 10,000 steps, so I took it off.” 

In Judaism, we have 613 mitzvoth or commandments, but if we translate the word mitzvah in Aramaic it means connection – they are actions that connect us to God.  Mitzvoth are acts, like the steps we take in a day, so the question is, if we don’t get to our goals, should we give up? 
Franz Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher and theologian from the late 1800s, answered this question.  One time, someone asked Rosenzweig whether he wore tefillin.  He replied, “Not yet.” 
Rosenzweig did think that he would one day become a fully observant Jew, but believed in the gradual approach in which the observances slowly made their impact by “ringing a bell” for him.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is all about keeping track.  In the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah we say -  Ki Zocher kol HaNishkachot Attah - Because You are the One who remembers for all eternity all that has been forgotten, and there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory – our deeds are recorded. 

On Rosh Hashanah our deeds are written, and on Yom Kippur, our deeds are sealed.
It seems that if our prayers are right, we wear a mitzvah Fit Bit, and yes, each step matters.  I know that this might be a scary thought for us – especially since more and more our actions are being recorded online.  But, there’s a different way to look at. 

The Talmud tells us that we need to see ourselves as half-guilty and half-innocent at all times, and Mitzvah Ahat, performing one mitzvah, can tip the balance in our favor for the year ahead.  And the Talmud goes on to say something even more profound:  One person’s actions, a mitzvah one person performs, can tip the balance for the entire world.

There’s a famous prayer that we say on these days that typify these holidays – the Unetaneh Tokef – and it contains this famous line from the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah: B’Rosh Hashanah Kol Baieh Olam Ovrin L’fanav K’VNEI MARON – our translation – On Rosh Hashanah, all those who dwell on earth, not just Jews, but every single person, passes before You, God – like a flock of sheep. 

But the Rabbis weren’t sure what this meant.

A famous scholar of the Talmud, Reish Lakish, says Kivnei Maron are like the people traversing the elevated paths of the Maron area, a mountainous part of Israel.  In Maron, there is a path where only one person can walk at a time and there are steep drops on both sides, again, they are alone, but they are going up.  And this is the important part of the interpretation – going up. 

Aliyah – it’s what we say when we come up to say the prayer before we read the Torah; it’s what we do when we move to Israel.  Going up. 

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we go up before God, and we’ve been climbing ever since then, until this moment – Neilah. 

Our service culminates with the whole community GOING UP before the Torah. 

But the going UP cannot end here, tonight.  So what does it mean to GO UP?

Rabbi Richard Agler, a friend and colleague, often talks about getting an injection of Vitamin J, J for Judaism.   Vitamin J isn’t a vaccine – it’s a vitamin, you need it everyday to stay healthy and grow. 

Reish Lakish, the famous rabbi who gave us this interpretation of going up, was on the path of stopping his spiritual rise.  He was a guy didn’t care at all about Judaism, didn’t learn a thing, and in fact, he was once a gladiator, the equivalent of a MMA fighter, and he also robbed people. 

But that all changed when a famous Rabbi named Yohanan challenged him as he was about to rob him:  Your strength should be for Torah.  Stop robbing, start learning, start doing, and GO UP. 

So here’s what I want you to do – set a goal for yourself – in addition to 10,000 steps, I want you to perform 10 mitzvoth a day:  say a bracha/blessing in the morning when you wake up; say hamotzi before you eat bread; call a friend who is sick; go to a Jewish website and read one article a day; donate $2 to a Jewish cause; kiss a mezuzah when you walk into home; give someone standing on the corner begging for money a couple of bucks on Friday before Shabbat.  The great thing about mitzvoth is that there are so many of them, so many opportunities to tip the balance for the entire world. 

10 mitzvoth a day – commit to it – write them down everyday, and by this time next year, you will have something to be truly proud of. 

I’m sure there’s an app for it also. 

And what happens if you don’t get to 10?  It’s ok, just tell yourself what Rozensweig once said, one day, I’ll get there, but I’m not there YET.   

For those who are looking for a way to strengthen the Jewish people this year – become more Jewish yourself – go up, for yourself, for your community, for Israel, for the whole world.  Even one mitzvah can change the course of the world. 

It all counts. 

In a couple of moments, the congregation will rise up from their seats, and get in line to stand before the Ark, before God.  You are going to go up – but God wants to see you again after this moment, and so do I. 

This year, my prayer for you is that you GO UP, that you take steps that will make you a better person, and a better Jew. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups: The Broken and The Whole©

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups:  The Broken and The Whole©
Yom Kippur Day, 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum

Last night, I told you the story about the glass cup I created, well, now’s the time for you to see it, but here’s the thing – there’s two of them.

Confused?  Let me explain.  When one makes something out of steel, you finish the product by dipping it into water so it cools.  But you can’t do that with glass.  After it becomes formed, you have to take the glass and put it in a special vessel where it is gradually cooled over 6 – 10 hours.  This is necessary because if you cool it too quickly, the glass will shatter, but if you put it in a hot place, the glass can melt. 

The next morning after I made my beautiful glass cup, I was expecting to have my creation in my hand, ready to show off to my friends.  I went to the glass blower and asked him when I could pick it up.  He looked at me and said, “Well, we had a problem – your glass cup was great, truly it was.  The problem is, there’s a crack that developed in the cup.  I thought you might be disappointed, so I made you a new cup, with the same colors, but it also needed time to cool.  If you come by later and you can pick it up.” 

I was excited – a new cup made by an expert glass blower!  It’ll probably look a lot better than mine, and it won’t have a crack – it’ll be perfect.  So the question I asked was, which one do I want?  The imperfect glass with a crack in it, or the perfect and round glass? 

There’s one more lesson about my glass cup that I need to teach you – a lesson I learned, and a lesson that has helped me become a better person. 

Remember when I told you what gift we received on Yom Kippur?  The second set of tablets – the whole ones.  The first set were shattered by Moses on the 17th of Tammuz, 40 days and nights earlier, when the people were worshipping the Golden Calf.  40 days and nights later, after Moses had his alone time, he brings down two new tablets.  So what happened to the first set of tablets?  Did he throw them away?  Use them to make the new ones?  Where did they go?

This is where the midrash steps in to fill in a hole in the Torah’s account of the Tablets – the rabbis tell us that the first set were not lost; they weren’t thrown away; they weren’t the building materials for the second set – they remained broken and shattered, and they were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the whole tablets.  The tablets that were in the Ark of the Covenant became the focal point of the camp – the people surrounded the Ark, it was the heart of the camp – when it moved, so did the people.  When the Holy Temple was built, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodeshim – it was the heart of the Israelites. 

The question is, why did they keep the brokenness and imperfection of the first set of Tablets with them, both in the Wilderness, and then eventually in the Temple, when they had perfection at their center?  Why keep the broken and the whole together? 

Today, I want to talk about this idea – the two glass cups, the two tablets – the whole tablets, and the broken tablets – the whole things in our lives, and the brokenness that we carry with us in OUR hearts. 

We live in amazing times.  Do you know what’s interesting?  There are fewer and fewer repairers in our country.  It used to be that there was a shoe repairer on every block, but now, who needs to repair shoes when you can just throw them away and buy a new pair?  Extended warrantees for most electronics are a joke – why repair it when you could just buy a new and more improved electronic item?  Why try and fix my old iPhone 5 when I can get a new iPhone 6? 

But there are some things we cannot just throw away, even if we want to so desperately.

I had this very real moment with my parents during the 10 Days of Tesuvah that I want to share with you.  They asked me about my Middle School experience which I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, they said, “we never knew you felt this way, why didn’t you tell us?”  For so long I had never told them the truth, but now was the time, it was part of my Tesuvah process.  I told them that it was difficult for me to share these things – I was picked on a lot and bullied because of my size, I felt incredibly lonely, I couldn’t get anyone, and no one could get me.  It wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but it was the first time that I experienced brokenness in my life, and I didn’t know how to handle it. 

Who in here hasn’t had a couple of years that they wish they never had? 

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we read a powerful line, “humans are like shattered pottery…”  We are, aren’t we?  Being broken is not something we strive for, or a badge of courage.  In fact, people will do anything to say they we are perfect, but that’s not who we are on the inside.  It’s when we are alone, those moments that we hate, when we acknowledge the brokenness, and we think we are weak or imperfect for having them. 

There were so many times when I wished I could forget those years, to pretend like they never happened, to forget how I felt, but I never can, I will never be able to – they will stay with me, like those broken tablets with the whole tablets.  Those broken pieces are literally a part of me.

And that’s what being a Jew is all about, it’s what this holiday is all about – acknowledging the brokenness. 

The brokenness I experienced during those two years of my life made me into the person I am today, and I am grateful for the person I am today – I became a kinder person, looking out for other kids who might be alone and scared - and I’m not the only one.

I met Rabbi Charles Sherman during my second year of Rabbinical school.  Rabbi Sherman was the long time rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York.  But I didn’t know him as Rabbi Sherman, I knew him as Chuck, an awesome father, and a passionate fan of the Syracuse Orangemen who sat behind Coach Jim Boeheim at almost every home game.  I became good friends with his son Erez, and I met his dad when they visited him in New York.  I had never met a happier guy than Chuck.  He was always smiling, always laughing and making jokes, “Hey Dave, how about your Gators?  You think they can be half as good as my Orangemen?”

He was so deeply proud of his son Erez, but as I soon found out, Rabbi Sherman has another son, that I dare say, he might be even more proud of:  Eyal.  Erez and I remain close, and he even married a good friend and classmate, Nicole Guzik, and they work as rabbis at one of the most prestigious Conservative Synagogues in North America, Sinai Temple.  They have two beautiful children, and one on the way.  Can you imagine having a son who is that accomplished, and who has given you two beautiful grandchildren, and you can have another son who you might be more impressed with?!?  Eyal didn’t go to rabbinical school, but he did graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree, but he was 28 at the time.  Eyal isn’t married, doesn’t have a job, and he’s in his 30’s and still lives with his parents. 

Something doesn’t quite add up here, right? 

Eyal had a much different path than his brother Erez.  In July of 1985, the Sherman family, Chuck, his wife Leah (who was pregnant at the time with their daughter Nitza), their daughters Nogah and Orah, their son Eyal, a 4 year old, and their youngest son, Erez, age 3, were taking their annual summer vacation in Elm Beach, in the Poconos where they owned a vacation home.  The sun was shining, the kids were playing, and little Eyal was gulping down chocolate popsicles – life couldn’t be any better.  Elm Beach was their family’s happy place – there were no cell phones or email at the time – Rabbi Sherman could just be Chuck, and his family, just another family enjoying the summer and the lake.  Chuck loves this memory and he writes about it in the book he wrote about his life – there, at that moment, his family was whole.  Eight months later, on a cold March night in Syracuse, Eyal woke up crying.  Rabbi Sherman sees his four year old son Eyal on the floor crying, his Sesame Street blanket rolled into a ball, his pillow on the floor, and he had a raging fever.  This was the beginning of their new lives, they just didn’t know it yet.  After visiting numerous doctors and hospitals, they finally received a diagnosis:  Eyal had a lesion the size of a golf ball intertwined in his brain stem.  Their doctors told them, “Take him home, enjoy whatever time you have left, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a year.  More likely, just weeks.” 

The Sherman’s weren’t ready to see their son die.  After months of searching, they found a surgeon in New York willing to operate on Eyal.  The surgery was successful, their hope in having a whole life was restored, they were whole again.  But, a few days later, Eyal had a brain-stem stroke; he slipped into a coma for four months.  Finally, Eyal woke up, and his mind was there.  He remembered his family, he could mouth words, and he even made a couple of jokes.  But his body was broken.  He became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on a vent to breath.  It was at that moment that they realized, their lives would never be the same again.  Only a handful of children with Eyal’s physical challenges had ever survived more than a couple of years, but Eyal has beaten the odds.  Eyal has always struggled physically – his life has not been easy, and his family has been there every step of the way.  But despite it all, not only has Eyal lived, but he graduated from Syracuse University after twelve years of study with a degree in Fine Arts, and he’s become a painter.  Thanks to the internet and a computer he controls with his chin, he keeps up with what’s happening in the world, he makes his own decisions, what he’s going to wear, what he wants to do, and who he wants to interact with.  Travel is not easy, but he travels, and I held Eyal’s hand when his younger brother Erez was ordained as a rabbi at JTS in 2009. 

He’s not a 4 year old anymore, now, he’s 33; and his life is a miracle.  But his life took his family in a different direction.  Rabbi Sherman likely could have left the small city of Syracuse and gone to lead one of the most prestigious synagogues in North America.  He was on his way to have the “perfect family”, where his children would all graduate from college, fall in love, find meaningful work, and build strong Jewish families of their own. 

Remember those first set of Tablets that Moses broke?  After liberating his people with God’s help from Egypt, after splitting the Red Sea by God’s hand and leading them safely through the waters, after being with God for 40 days and 40 nights and literally bringing down Tablets that God Godself made, Moses finds that the people have forgotten about him, forgotten about God; they were worshipping a golden calf, degrading themselves.  Moses couldn’t take it, and he broke the Tablets – the vision of his and his people’s life would never come to fruition.  Both Moses and God forgave the people, and a new set of tablets were made, but the first set, the broken set, always remained with them – imperfection always remained with them. 

There’s an old Yiddish expression – Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht - Man plans, God laughs.  It’s a cruel expression, I know.  It’s kind of like that expression that you may hear when something terrible happens to you, “Everything happens for a reason.” 

I have a confession to make, I hate the phrase, everything happens for a reason.  Ok, maybe ‘I missed this bus and found my wife or husband’ everything happens for a reason.  But, my wife made the flight, and she was died in a plane crash – everything happens for a reason? 

Please God, take your reason and give me back my wife, my husband, my brother, my sister, my child.  Please God, save the comedy for us, stop laughing.

But perhaps we can look at this expression, and the brokenness that we all experience in a different way.  Perhaps we can make beauty and meaning out of the broken things in our lives? 

Perhaps we can make reason.

There is an old story told by the Maggid of Dubno, a famous Hassidic rabbi and storyteller who lived in the 1700’s.  There was once a wealthy king who had it all – a loving family, a glorious kingdom, gold piled high to the ceiling, beautiful tapestries, you name it, he had it.  But his most prized possession was a diamond he owned – not only was it the largest in the world, it was the purest and most flawless diamond ever found.  He would stare at it, day after day, hour after hour.  One morning, he took the diamond out of its box, and he noticed something that startled him:  the diamond had a huge scratch in it – it was no longer perfect.  He was dismayed, how could this happen?!?  So he called the greatest stone cutters in the land to his court.  One by one they came to inspect the diamond. Each looked at it closely and then sadly shook his head. The scratch was too deep. If they tried to polish it they might break the diamond into pieces.  Finally one last diamond carver came before the king. He looked at the diamond closely, gazing at it from every angle.  He took the diamond for two weeks, and the king could not wait.  Finally, after two weeks of work from sun rise to sun set, the diamond carver brought the treasured diamond back to the king. 

"Here it is, your majesty," he said. With a flourish he opened the cloth and presented the diamond.

The king gasped at what he saw. Where there had once been a scratch, a horrible flaw in his precious diamond, there was now an exquisitely beautiful flower carved into the diamond. Unable to polish the scratch out of the diamond, the diamond carver had instead turned the flaw into something beautiful.  The king loved his flawed diamond more than ever. Now when he went to hold it in his hands and gaze upon it, he was reminded that even something imperfect could become something exquisitely beautiful if you work on it. 

Today is the day when we show God our broken tablets, our hearts, just like Moses showed to God when he went back up the mountain.  And today, when we are at our most vulnerable, God helps us put the pieces back together, God helps us make reason out of everything that has happened to us, but we have to work on it. 

On Rosh Hashanah, our fates are written, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed.  With God’s help, we seal them, with God’s help, we put the broken pieces back together, but the scars remain forever.  

I see a lot of broken people out there – and thank God that I do, because you, those who are standing here today, have tried to put the pieces back together, and you know how I know?  Because you are here with open hearts.  Some have more work to do than others, like Eyal Sherman and his family, but the more work they do, the more beautiful their lives become.  The more work we do, the more beautiful our lives become. 

Eyal wrote the last chapter in Rabbi Sherman’s book, The Broken and the Whole:  Discovering Joy After Heartbreak.  He writes about getting into the wheelchair for the first time at age 5, going back home, and making a decision:  “Do I sit and look at the walls all day, or do something with my life.”

He decided to do something, to expand his horizons.  It had a snowball effect on him, and others.  One thing lead to another.  He ends the book with these words, “When I see people doing all kinds of things, it makes me have the urge to do what they are doing, too.  What I’ve learned is there is more to life just sitting in a wheelchair.  Eyal penned a short poem:

It isn’t fair
I’m in a wheelchair,
But I can do things that you wouldn’t dare
If you see me rolling by,
Just give a smile and say Hi!

He continues, “I have a dream, that someday I will be able to walk and overcome all my disabilities and God shall answer each and every one of our prayers, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle.” 

So which cup did I choose, the broken and imperfect one; or the whole and perfect one made by the skilled hand of a professional?  I kept both, but my favorite one is the one with the crack, the broken one, because I made it, with God’s help, and with God’s help, I found the beauty in it.  And so, I ask of you on this Day of Atonement, to embrace the broken things in your lives, and work to make them beautiful, knowing that they will never be quite as whole as you envisioned it. 

But remember, it’s yours, you made it, with God, and maybe, just maybe, one day, your dreams will come true, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle. 

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 1 –Be Alone, Be Powerful, Be Shaped©

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 1 –Be Alone, Be Powerful, Be Shaped©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Kol Nidre 5776/2015

This is the holiest night of the year, and so the question I’m about to ask to begin my sermon tonight may seem strange....but have you ever made anything out of glass?  

I want to tell you about an experience I had this summer, when I, a very inartistic person, made something out of glass that I now place in my cabinet along with all our family’s Judaica – our kiddish cups, our candle sticks, our challah and seder plates, and our havdallah sets.

This summer, while I was at Camp Ramah Darom[1], I had the chance to learn how to blow glass. Let me set the scene for you that day.  It was a hot and humid day in North Georgia, and I had just 29 minutes with a man who stood in front a fiery furnace.  The man looked at me, and gave me a long metal tube, and said to me, “I’m going to need you to listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.  What you are about to do is not going to be easy, but you will create something beautiful today.  We only have 29 minutes, so let’s get started.” 

Tonight, I’m going to tell you why this thing I made out of glass is holy to me, and I hope the lessons I learned when I made it will help you find holiness on the holiest night of the year, but I hope to do it in less than 29 minutes. 

Here are the three main lessons I want to teach you tonight are:

1.     It’s ok, once in a while, to be alone, actually, we need it. 
2.     Our breath has tremendous power
3.     We are delicate and we are constantly being shaped, just like glass.

And there’s one other big lesson that I’m going to save for tomorrow.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, but it was on this day thousands of years ago that our people received a very special gift, a priceless piece of art that we put in our cabinet. 

Moses, our teacher, had a pair of tablets in his hands, the 10 Commandments. Can you imagine how he must have felt holding these tablets literally made by God!  Now, imagine how he felt when he saw his people dancing in front of the golden calf.  And so, he broke them, he broke these tablets on the 17th of Tammuz, and he went back up the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and he made a new set of tablets.  And today, on Yom Kippur, he brought them down, the second tablets. 

The Talmud tells us that Yom Kippur was the happiest day of the year because we are forgiven for our sins and because Moses brought us these new tablets it was a fresh start. 

And here is what happened to Moses on this day, that Yom Kippur, thousands of years ago.  He comes down with the second tablets, and Torah tells us:

And Moses had not known that the skin of his face had become radiant when God was speaking with him.  And Aaron and all the children saw Moses, v’hinei, Karan Or Panav, and here, the skin of his face was radiant, Va’yiru migeshet eilav – and they feared to approach him,   - Exodus 34:29 – 30.

I like to read these last words, and they feared to approach him, in a different way.  The people see him, and he looks completely different.  They don’t fear him, they are IN AWE of him, in awe of his radiance. 

Where does Moses’s radiance come from?

Moses was in a cave for 40 days and 40 nights– he was with God, he was alone, but with God.  Can you imagine if this happened nowadays?  How many times would Moses have been interrupted by a call or a text? 

“Bzzzzzz (vibrating sound), hold on God, I have to take this call.”

How many times are we truly alone?  How many times are we with someone, and they are talking, and we are thinking, “What’s going on on Facebook?  Who will call me next?  Oh, I forgot to text so and so.”  It never ends, from the moment we pick our heads up from our pillows to the moment we lay them down! 

In the world of constant connectivity, we are never truly alone.

As I sat with the glass blower in front of this kiln, and he told me, I need you to focus, because this oven is really hot and you don’t have a lot of time.  I’m not going to talk to you either unless absolutely necessary – think about yourself as being alone right now.

It is not easy to be alone, sometimes, it can be scary to hear our thoughts that have been dormant for so long, but in order to create this glass cup, I had to be alone in my thoughts, and focused. 

Admiral Richard E. Byrd was a famous American explorer who received the Medal of Honor, the highest honor given out by the U.S. for his expeditions to the North and South Poles.  In 1934, he manned an advanced weather base in the Antarctic, but he insisted on being alone.  Here is what he wrote in his diary about this decision:  “Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort.  Nothing whatever, except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the fullest, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.” 

Byrd led a very happy life, he loved being surrounded by his family and friends.  But, he was put under a tremendous amount of pressure organizing all of these expeditions to the North and South Poles because of fundraising and publicity.  It gave him high anxiety and he was overwhelmed.  He writes that he was spent, he was tired, and he had lost his way.  His time alone re-energized him, he says he never felt more alive. 

The Rabbis used to do something interesting – before they would daven, before they would join the minyan for prayer, they would meditate for an hour in order to attain a Koved Rosh, a koved mind.  Koved can mean heavy, or it can mean serious, or it could mean honorable – a serious mindset.[2]

It teaches me an important lesson:  when we are alone, we are able to take ourselves seriously, we are able to honor ourselves, we are able to confront and overcome the heavy things in our lives.  And we are able to appreciate the beauty of the world. 

We become radiant! 

Byrd wrote in his diary about his time alone, “I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before:  appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values…Civilization has not altered my ideas.  I live more simply now, and with more peace.” 

Moses went back into that cave and he made a second set of Tablets, not God.  He was alone with God for 40 days and 40 nights.  He needed that time to recover, to recharge himself, to find meaning and purpose again. 

On Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol, the high priest, had a very special task – he had to go to the Holiest of Holy places, the place in the Temple which contained the Ark of the Covenant which held these very same ancient tablets, the Ten Commandments, and he said the name of God, alone.  For one moment in the year, the high priest had to be alone with God, and when he came out, our prayers tell us that he had the same radiance on his face that Moses had. 

Perhaps we can learn from this, perhaps we can give ourselves at least one moment a year to achieve the highest degree of holiness.  When we spend a little time alone, we are better equipped to be better people in this world.  So this year, I ask, if you can, to do one thing – spend a couple of minutes being truly alone so you can gain radiance and strength.  Turn off your phone, go for a walk, be present and with yourself so you can be radiant this year.  And just like the people of Israel who looked at Moses and the high priest, in awe, maybe people will look at you in awe this year. 

And now, the second lesson, which I could only learn by being alone, when I made this glass cup, is the power of my breath. 

The correct term for making a glass item is blowing glass.  You stand with a long metal tube with the lava like gooey substance on the other end, and in order to make something, you have to blow your air into it. 

It wasn’t easy.  At first, you have to blow really hard to make the glass expand, but then, you have to blow really softly lest you cause a hole to develop in the glass, and all the while, you are turning and turning this metal tube.  I went from being out of breath at one point to having to barely blow just a minute later.

After I had blown successfully, the glass blower said some very profound words, “Look at what your breath created!” 

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of world and humanity.  God creates Adam in the following way, “YHWH God fashioned Adam, dust from the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human, Adam, became a living being.” 

Without breath, things cannot come to life.  God’s name in this line in Genesis 2:7 is Yud Hey Vav Hey.  God has many names, but one of the unique names of God for the Jewish people is YHVH – which some say is an onomatopoeia, a word that imitates or resembles the source of the sound that they describe – for example, the ultimate Jewish onomatopoeia – OY! 

If you say the word YHVH, it is literally a breath. 

It’s the name of God that the High Priest may have uttered in the Holy of Holies. 

What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God?  We have the power of creation, just like God does.  The question is, what are we creating when we use our breath? 

It’s during this holiday, Yom Kippur, when we confront the sins we perform, the realities we create with our breath. How do we repent and seek atonement for them?  We must recite them out loud in the form of the Vidui, the confessional.  It’s the third in a series of four steps of Tesuvah, repentance.  The first two are internal – first we must regret our actions, to acknowledge to ourselves that we’ve made a mistake; then, we have to stop performing the actions; but then, we must confess out loud. 

Why out loud?  Because when we give breath to something, it becomes alive.  Then, and only then, can we complete the repentance process by resolving not to do it again. 

Our breaths create the realities we live in; they create who we are.  The question is, what kind of selves are we creating?  This leads me to my third lesson:  We are all delicate works of art, and we are constantly changing, whether we like it or not. 

In the Yom Kippur evening liturgy, the prayers we recite tonight, there is a beautiful, powerful, and some would say scary poem called Ki Hinei KaChomer –As Clay in the hands of the potter – one of the stanzas states the following, “As glass in the hand of the glazier [gley-zher] who shapes and melts it at will, so are we in Your hand, pardoner of sin and transgression.  The poet pleads with God – use us creatively, not destructively!  Let us become beautiful art in this world!  Help us achieve our potential! 

And the poet forces us to acknowledge – we are like clay, we are like glass, but isn’t that a good thing?  It means that I can change, that I can be become better. 

One time a woman was shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, but none of the turkeys she found were large enough to feed her family. She asks a young man stocking the shelves:  “Do these turkeys get any bigger?”

“No, ma’am,” he answers. “They’re all dead.”

Today, on Yom Kippur, we confront death head on – we are rehearsing our deaths by wearing white, by abstaining from earthly pleasures, but we are doing so alive, and breathing. 

The Psalmist says, Lo HaMeitim Yehaleluyah, the dead can’t praise God, and they also can’t change, but we can. 

We grow firmer or more flexible in our attitudes. We develop new skills and abilities. We grow in vision and we grow in confidence. We may also change in negative ways if we’re not careful. We may grow more fearful, more cynical or insensitive to others. We may even find ourselves becoming people we don’t like very much.

Life is all about growing and changing.

If we’re dead, we won’t grow. But if we’re alive, we will. The only question is, will you decide how you want to grow? Will you decide to take responsibility for shaping your life? Because, if you don’t make a decision about how you’re going to grow, life will make it for you. If you’re not in the process of becoming the person you want to be, you are in the process of becoming someone you had no intention of being.[3]
So my question is, not if you are growing and changing this year, but how are you growing the changing this year? 

When you are faced with adversity this year, when someone cuts you off in traffic, or you are hurt by a friend or loved one, and you are alone, with just yourself, ask yourself the following question before you act: 

What would the person I want to become do in this situation?

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Remember, as glass in the hand of the glazier [gley-zher], who shapes and melts it at will, so are we in Your hand – God helps us create ourselves, God helps us shape ourselves.  What kind of YOU do YOU want to create this year?  Remember, God gave us God’s breath, which allows us to constantly grow and change.  It’s a gift – don’t take it for granted, keep shaping yourself, keep creating the person YOU want to be.   

Bruno Mars was right:  ‘you’re amazing, just the way you are.’

You’re great now, you’re amazing.  Actually, you might be the person you need to be right now, so celebrate it. 

But, with your next breath, you will change, and it’s up to you to make the decision of how you want to change.

First, you need to work on YOU.  You need a couple of moments to be alone with God so you can become even more radiant.

Second, you have to realize how powerful you can be using your breath.

And third, you have to have the wisdom to use that power to change yourself, with God’s help, because you’re changing no matter what, so why not be in control of that change? 

Remember, someone else is waiting for you in the future – a different version of you, but you can create that person, with every breath you take.

[1] Thank you to Camp Ramah Darom and Laurel (Daphna) Robinson for this one of a kind opportunity -
[2] BT Berachot 30b
[3] Inspired by Steve Goodier of

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yom Kippur Sermon Preparation 5776/2015

Some pictures to prepare you for my sermons tonight and tomorrow - Have you ever made anything out of glass? I did for the first time this summer, and I'm going to share the profound lessons I learned - about you and me...our strength and our delicateness; life and death...and the power of our breath; the broken and the whole. Gmar Chatimah Tovah - looking forward to transcending with you on Yom HaKippurim.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Israel Chooses Life© Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Israel Chooses Life©
Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

A new rabbi was once hired by a congregation.  His predecessor was a divisive fellow, and unfortunately, through many of his sermons, he hurt many.  So the leadership of this congregation wanted to set their rabbi up for success, to talk to him about his sermons.  They asked him, “Rabbi, what are you going to speak about on the high holidays?”  “Well, he answers, I wanted to start off by talking about the value of Shabbat in our lives, how it’s central to what it means to be a Jew.”  The leaders looked at each other with terror, “Rabbi, if you do that, then you will alienate our many congregants who don’t keep Shabbat.  “Ok, well, my second day Rosh Hashanah sermon is about kashruth.  I believe that kashurth is the central, no, the essential element to what it means to be a Jew.”  A look of even greater terror came upon their faces – “Rabbi, for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about kashruth.  Our treasurer owns a rib restaurant in town, and as you can see by his waist, he certainly partakes.  He will be mortified and hurt, you cannot talk about Kashruth.”  The rabbi was astonished and confused, “I can’t talk about Shabbat, and I can’t talk about Kashruth, what can I talk about?” 

Say it with me now, “Talk about Judaism.”

Believe it or not, this happened to me this summer, not at our congregation, heaven forbid, this would never happen here.  It was a 21-year-old girl at Camp Ramah who told me what I couldn’t talk about.  I was at Ramah Darom teaching and preaching for two weeks.  For those who do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement.  The camp is also a Hebrew speaking camp.  The idea is that all announcements in public are made in Hebrew only, no translation, and it’s a deeply Zionist camp.  In fact, they bring in 40 young Israelis each summer as representatives of the country to work there.  In short, there’s no Camp Ramah without Israel.  So when it came to teaching staff learning, naturally, I thought we could have a conversation about Israel and Iran, especially after the Iran Nuclear Deal was announced.  So I asked the Rosh Eidah, the unit head, what she thought.  “Rabbi, under no circumstances can you teach about Israel, it’s way too divisive.”  “So what should I teach about?” 

Well, you could guess her answer. 

But I have to talk about Israel and I have to talk about us, it’s just too important.  So please accept my apologies in advance for those who I might offend, but today, I have to talk about Judaism.

Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year.  We are standing on a mountain, and we have a choice, do we define ourselves according to our enemies?  Are we who we are ONLY because of Egypt, only because of Amalek, the tribe that sought our destruction?  Do we look backward to sadness and death, or do we look forward, to an unknown future, but a future of life? 

Our people were once at this point, standing beside a mountain 40 years after their parents were freed from slavery.  They were wandering, and finally, they were about to enter the Promised Land, and this is what Moshe told them:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—.”  Deuteronomy 30:19

And so today, we too must choose life – actually, it’s what we’ve always done as Jews.  Israel loves life, but many in the world seem to think otherwise, and when we see things on television or the internet, it might challenge these ideas that we hold so dearly.

When we see that an entire population from 18-21 must be in the army, and when we see them carrying machine guns in the streets.

When we see that Israel devotes a fifth of its national budget to it’s armed forces, but the poverty rate is so high, and people are starving. 

When we see people stabbed during Gay Pride parades, and Palestinian babies being burned in their beds by Jewish terrorists. 

When we see some of Israel’s minorities accusing Israel of not including them in the country because they aren’t Jews. 

When Israel is called out for being the only nation in the entire world opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, that they prefer bombing to diplomacy. 

Ba’charta BaChaim – Choose Life?!?  It doesn’t seem like Israel chooses life!   

I want to share a story with you: There were once two angels traveling and they stopped to spend the night in the home of a wealthy family. The family was rude and refused to let the angels stay in the mansion's guest room. Instead the angels were given a small space in the cold basement. As they made their bed on the hard floor, the older angel saw a hole in the wall and repaired it.

When the younger angel asked why, the older angel replied, "Things aren't always what they seem."

The next night the pair came to rest at the house of a very poor, but very hospitable farmer and his wife. After sharing what little food they had the couple let the angels sleep in their own bed where they could have a good night's rest.

When the sun came up the next morning the angels found the farmer and his wife in tears. Their only cow, whose milk had been their sole income, lay dead in the field.
The younger angel was infuriated and asked the older angel, "How could you have let this happen? The first man had everything, yet you helped him. The second family had little but was willing to share everything, and you let the cow die."

The older angel replies:  "Things aren't always what they seem.  When we stayed in the basement of the mansion, I noticed there was gold stored in that hole in the wall. Since the owner was so obsessed with greed and unwilling to share his good fortune, I sealed the wall so he wouldn't find it."

"Then last night as we slept in the farmers bed, the angel of death came for his wife. I gave him the cow instead. Things aren't always what they seem."

Things aren’t always what they seem:

We see that an entire population from 18-21 must be in the army, and when we see them carrying machine guns in the streets. When we see that Israel devotes a fifth of its national budget to it’s armed forces, but their poverty rate is so high.

What some do not see is how Israel views her soldiers – that every year when mothers and fathers drop their 18 year olds off, they cry.  They feel like Abraham bringing Isaac to the alter.  They hope and pray that the draft will end one day, that their children will not have to bring their grandchildren to the army base. 

What some do not see is that Israel has been in four major wars where losing meant the end of their lives, and numerous other wars where they are forced to choose – do we attack terrorists hiding behind civilians, risking our own lives, and in almost all cases, they choose NOT to kill – they choose life. 

The Israeli Army is not an attack force, it’s called Zahal – Zva L’Haganah L’Israel – the Army for the protection and defense of Israel.  That name might not strike fear in its enemies, but it is who we are – we choose life, and we always have, but it’s not just Israel, it’s our people.

What we don’t see when some in Israel’s minorities accuse Israel of discrimination because they aren’t Jewish is how minorities are treated in surrounding countries, or better yet, how everyone is treated in surrounding Arab countries.  How Arab Israelis have the right to vote and to be in the government, but wouldn’t have that right across the borders. 

We see stories of how minorities in Israel are embraced by the public, even by the Ultra-Orthodox. 

When a Druze Security guard named Zidan Saif gave his life to protect a synagogue last year in the Har Noff neighborhood of Jerusalem after it was attacked during prayer by Palestinian terrorists, the families of the victims came together, and raised money for Saif family.  Not only that, but Ultra-Orthodox rabbis demanded that their people attend Saif’s funeral.  They even said the El Maleh Rachamim prayer which in the Ultra Orthodox world is dedicated only to Jews.  In this case, they made an exception – Zidan is counted among the holy and the pure.  Ultra-Orthodox at a Muslim funeral, praying for a Muslim man? 

Things aren’t always what they seem

We saw people being attacked during a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, a teenage Jewish girl who died of these wounds, and a Palestinian baby being burned in her bed by Jewish terrorists.  What some choose not to see was the public outcry from left and especially from those on the right who condemned the terrorists and made no excuses for them!  They said, “this is not what Jews do!”  They condemned the attackers as terrorists. 

When Israel is called out for being the only nation in the entire world opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, and were accused of preferring bombing to diplomacy.  What some do not want to see is a mentality, an ideology, that Israel faces from Hamas, Hizbollah, and yes, the Ayatollahs of Iran – “You, Israelis and Jews, love life, while we are unafraid of death…this is your weakness.”  Israel hears ‘we are going to wipe you off the map’ and they listen – I know, it may sound crazy, but Israel takes their words seriously!  

What some fail to see, and what others do not see is that Choosing Life is actually our strength! 

Israel loves life, and it’s because they love life that they do the things they do.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg famously said, “If Israel was 5% more moral they would truly be a light onto the nations.  If they were 10% more moral, they would be dead.” 

This week, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini, sent out a tweet, yes, the Ayatollah has a Twitter account. 

His tweet read the following:  “Israel – you will not see the next 25 years, God willing, there will be nothing left of the Zionist regime in 25 years, secondly, until then, struggling heroic and Jihadi morale will leave no moment of serenity for the Zionists”

He added in a second Tweet, “U.S. is the great Satan” some insist on depicting this great Satan as an angel.”  He had more choice words – but you get the point. 

I’m not making this up – this is the message our negotiating partner sent to the world. 

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism once commented on the words, “Inscribe us in the Book of Life.”  He says that we must understand this phrase in a spiritual sense – that we can write ourselves in the book of Life, and we can write ourselves in the book of Death. 

It’s a choice – and we choose life. 

We Jews are a critical people – we are always seeking to improve, and we realize that Israel is not perfect, that Israel at times, needs to do some soul searching, but, we all have to agree on one point, no matter where you stood this summer -Israel Chooses Life – Israel writes itself constantly in the book of life, whereas Hamas, Hizbollah, and their funder and spiritual guide Iran shows itself time and time again to write itself and others in the Book of Death.

Israel invests in future technologies to help heal the world – Iran actually has a terrorism budget to help destabilize and destroy the world. 

When we see these things coming from the Supreme leader of Iran, we must tell the world, in this case, things are as they seem – we worship and choose life, while they worship and choose death. 

This is why we will succeed, because we choose life, we write ourselves in the book of life, and we will do so in the coming year, and for years after.  

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, as we stand on a mountain looking at the new year, we have a choice, do we look back at division, or look forward, like Moshe wanted us to do when he stood on the mountain, and choose life, choose living together, choose a mission to bring healing to the world. 

May this be a year of peace, Shalom, but not just of peace, but of what Shalom really means – wholeness and unity. 

We must continue to use our secret weapon, to be a light unto the nations - Bacharta Ba’Chaim – Choose Life.